He understood that the task of molding the incoherent and dizzying stuff that dreams are made of is the most difficult work a man can undertake, even if he fathom all the enigmas of the higher and lower spheres -- much more difficult than weaving a rope of sand or minting a coin of the faceless wind.
-- from "The Circular Ruins" by Jorge Luis Borges
Christopher Nolan's Inception is another one of those sci-fi tales confronting the problem of infinity lurking behind subjectivity. Because it uses dreams instead of virtual reality, the film is structurally closer to the short story quoted above than the cyberpunk-influenced Matrix (although the action puts it closer to the latter). In Borges' tale, a sorcerer spends years dreaming a man into reality only to learn that he, too, was given life via the same method. And it's just as likely that the dreamer of the sorcerer is himself being dreamed, etc., ad infinitum. This is the old phenomenological problem of the Transcendental Ego.
In order to have a collection of intentional states (which are always regarding some mental or physical object) cohere as a self (the 'I' that's doing the believing, desiring, etc.), Edmund Husserl posited a transcendent pure subject that couldn't be objectified. This I was pre-reflective, the guy who was there each time an intentional state was being reflected upon (the I thinking "it is I who likes pizza" at one time and "It is I who hates the rain" at another). As with all such metaphysical "buck stops here" explanations (cf. the final cause argument for God), the question soon arose as to why this Ego didn't require another, more transcendent one to ground its reflective relations. And since then, many theorists from various disciplines have been perfectly happy with the notion of a fractured self, that the I is nothing but a comforting mask for deterministic forces (cf. the death of the author, social Darwinism, or connectionism). Causal language is more scientistic, but problematic for suggesting the possibility that we humans have free agency, that there is something of a self not purely reducible to objective control, or material determinations. Thus, philosophical libertarianism sounds suspicious to many, like a new agey charlatanry.
There is a real world practical implication to this question of self-determination, namely that to be without agency makes morality (presumedly a very human characteristic) dubious. How responsible is a member of the Borg, or one of the inhabited human bodies in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers? (All of this is much more complicated than I'm making it out to be, see here or particularly here.) While it's true that most people haven't spent much time reading about mind-body dualism, the fractured self, or determinism, they have experienced what it feels like to be treated as a product, which is ultimately what the death of the subject adds up to. Modern-day capitalism relies on such an instrumentalist reduction; like the Borgesian dreamer of the dreamer, it creates the world which makes the reduction possible and even tolerable (the oneiric creation of a "real" man can only work if reality is illusion; capitalism only works if we accept its spectacles as reality). I suggest therein lies the intrinsic allure to Inception, a heist genre reworking of Borges, Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard (to my mind, three of the most relevant writers to the 21st century). Some spoilers will follow.
While the telling of the story is somewhat convoluted, the plot is pretty basic, and not all that different from movies starring Jean Gabin or Sterling Hayden: in addition to his long-term partner, Arthur, Cobb is to assemble a team of experts for one final score initiated by Saito. Cobb is to enter the subconscious of Robert Fischer, planting the seed of an idea, which will turn him against the dying wish of his father, Maurice, for global dominance over energy resources through their corporation. Thus, the theft results by leaving something. Inception is the name of this subliminal procedure, but also provides a certain irony in the film's title, since it's never clear where the dreamscape actually begins, as is constantly alluded to throughout (e.g., walls close in on Cobb as he's running, despite being in the supposedly real world; his children don't age or change clothes from the memory of the last time he saw them). The additional crew members are: the chemist, Yusuf, who provides the specialized soporifics needed to enter dreams; Eames, the forger, who can become dream simulations of other people; and the architect, Ariadne, who's responsible for mentally designing the Möbius labyrinthes that they'll work in/are trapped by. The oneiric architecture is something like a M.C. Escher print, or Ballard's "Concentration City," which creates the illusion of space, but when an inhabitant takes the subway far enough, he ends up where he started (as the global networks connect us, the world seems smaller, yet we increasingly lose the ability to get anywhere different). If the team succeeds, Cobb will be free to return to his children in America through a simple phone call by Saito (yet another sign that reality is artifice).
Mal framed Cobb for her own suicide years ago, and he's been on the lam ever since. After spending too many years in the dream world, Mal lost her grip on what was actually real. When she awoke (through Cobb's use of inception on her), she no longer believed that reality was anything more than the mental architecture of another dreamer (as is the case in "The Circular Ruins"). Rather than accept this, she believed suicide was the only way of returning to reality. The frameup was her attempt at forcing Cobb to join her. He turns to a life of crime, blaming himself for her delusional state. He tries to lock away a guilt-derived simulacrum of his wife in his mental basement, but she constantly escapes to interfere with his thought crimes (such as warning his victims that they're in a dream). Of course, it's not clear who's actually delusional here.
In Total Recall (based on Dick's "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"), Quaid's a bored construction worker who pays for a virtual memory implant of an adventure where he's a spy with a forgotten identity. Something goes wrong with the programming, so that either he's really a spy who's just been awoken by the implant, or he's losing his self-identity to the malfunctioning computer. When a doctor tries to warn him of the latter, Quaid kills him to remain in what is quite likely virtual reality. Analogously, Mal tries to warn Cobb that he's lost in mental limbo, but he's convinced that she's too imperfect to be his real wife. She points out the ridiculousness of how he's supposed to see his kids again (why would a phone call free him of suspicion?) and how there's no clear beginning to any of the settings Cobb finds himself (there is no memory of how one gets to the beginning of a dream sequence). To increase the confusion and give the narrative a patina of unreality, Nolan de-emphasizes transitional sequences (the primary source for tension and pleasure in a heist film like Rififi) -- the characters seemingly pop up in one place and then another with little sense of time passing or distance traversed.
Furthermore, each member of the team has a totem, which functions as a reality anchor. A totem has to feel the right weight and function according to physical laws if the person is awake, unlike when he or she is dreaming. It should never be handled by another, since that could alter its functioning in a dream (an architect could otherwise account for the object's phenomenal qualities in his or her design so that it behaves as if it were really there). Cobb doesn't have one of his own, only the spinning top that was once his wife's, suggesting that his anchor is compromised. So when he decides to complete the mission and rejoin his children (which Mal tells him are nothing but virtual projections), it's possible that he's retreating from reality, deeper into his subconscious, which might be controlled by some unknown architect. Nolan leaves the ending ambiguous.
Yet, despite all of that, Inception is kind of a bore to sit through. Cobb spends too much time spouting technobabble, an attempt to somehow make the fantasy sound more plausible. At least a quarter of the film is spent detailing arbitrary rules. A few writers can do this well (e.g., Samuel Delany, Stanislaw Lem) by using invented explanatory concepts to critique real world social structures (scientific, literary, political -- e.g., the way Solaris tells its story through fictional research articles), but here it's more like midi-chlorians. Relatedly, the dreams are too weighed down by a realistic aesthetic. Each layer of the constructed dreamworld (corresponding to increasingly deeper layers of the subconscious) is causally tied in with the other layers. When a van in one level is falling, the sleeping characters inside begin to float in the next dream within a dream they're collectively having as if there was some shared physical space with attendant nomological properties. Similarly, when Saito is shot on an upper level, he begins to bleed on the lower ones. And time behaves in standard linear fashion, only at different speeds depending on the layer (avatars age more slowly on the more subconscious levels). Not only does none of this make sense (in dream logic or the realistic kind -- e.g., we can fly in a dream regardless of our waking state, so why would such a causal connection obtain between two levels of dreaming?), but it serves to make the dream world mundane. Worse yet is that the majority of the mission involves bombs, machine guns and car chases. Maybe Nolan dreams of The A-Team, but mine look and feel more like Kwaidan.
"The Black Hair" from Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan.